Baptized by Water and Fire – A sermon on the 2nd Sunday of Advent 2010

Children’s time: Introduce stuffed animals: wolf & a lamb. What does the lamb eat? How about the wolf? Can you imagine a day when they will live together in peace? We read in the Bible that some day that wolf will lay down with the lamb as friends – that the lion will eat grass and NOT other animals! Hard to believe, isn’t it? Jesus once told his followers that he was sending them into the world as sheep among the wolves. Let’s remember this when we see bad things happening or violence around us. How are we going to be the peaceful people God wants us to be?

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: Grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Every year, about this time, John the Baptist shows up on the scene upsetting our sensibilities with his call to repent and make ready for the coming king. But even Jesus had his moments of heightened emotion and contradiction.

I still remember watching Nikos Kanzantzakis’ portrayal of Jesus in the movie: The Last Temptation of Christ. Jesus is played by a wild-eyed, gapped-tooth, Willem DaFoe – and he’s a conflicted character – sometimes insecure and other times bold and brassy. “I’m gonna baptize everybody with fire!” he shouts after riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. A moment later, he’s asking Judas to hold his hand, wondering if he really has what it takes to be the Son of God.

It’s a baptism by fire that Jesus provides. He set the world on fire! And yet, the Bible gives no evidence that Jesus really baptized anyone. We have John baptizing (as in today’s lesson) and we have the disciples baptizing new converts in the early church, but the only baptism we have by Jesus is his fiery message and ministry.

First off, we have John the Baptist, clothed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He’s a strange character, calling people into the countryside to confess their sins and be baptized. And, apparently, his message is working. He’s gathering a following. People came en masse to be washed in the River Jordan.

So what’s gotten into John when the religious leaders come? Why does he go off on the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized? It’s like he’s possessed with rage: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you about the wrath to come? Show me some true repentance then come be baptized!”

Even before Jesus’ ministry could get started, John is letting them know that the coming king won’t be “just for the Sons of Abraham.” ALL people are welcome in God’s kingdom. And it’s not your institutions that will save you. The old ways are passing away… and the new is coming.

This, too, is a wake up call for us. We, who cherish our way of doing things. We’ve had 50 years in this place to get used to the “Holy Cross” way of worship and ministry. What might John the Baptizer say to us in 2010?

In his book: The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien writes about how smaller churches need to re-define what success is. Most of the church growth seminars and workshops out there are put on by the pastors of mega-churches that have seen incredible growth numerically. But that doesn’t reflect the experience of most churches. O’Brien writes:

“According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, there are 177,000 churches in America with fewer than 100 weekly worshipers and another 105,000 churches that see between 100 and 500 in attendance each week.” [We’re at about 175 on a Sunday, by the way] “On the other hand,” O’Brien continues, “there are only 19,000 churches – or 6 percent of the total – with more than 500 attendees. …We have allowed the ministry experience of 6 percent of pastors to become the standard by which the remaining 94 percent of us judge ourselves.” (O’Brien, 25)

So, what makes us a strong church? How might we re-define our success as a congregation? What sort of success model might we have to repent of to follow Christ in Spirit?

By all worldly standards, it would appear that Jesus’ ministry was a complete and utter failure. But it started out with scores of people following him and pledging their allegiance to his cause. By the time he reached Jerusalem and the final days of his life, though, his followers had left him in droves – particularly as he began to tell them that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. And as he hung dying on the cross he was forsaken by all including God.

Perhaps this is the ultimate baptism that Christ offers us: a baptism into death. In Romans 6 we read: “When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

In 1839, Edward Bulwer Lytton coined the phrase: “the pen is mightier than the sword.” He might have just found his inspiration in these words from Isaiah 11, where a new king would come, ruling with the “rod of his mouth” and the “breath of his words… The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”

We see that coming king as Jesus, and yet others do not, because the peaceable kingdom described didn’t happen: “On that day the wolf shall live with the lamb and the lion will eat straw like an ox… the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp.” “Only when we have true peace on earth will we have our true messiah,” say the skeptics.

Several weeks ago (in early October) I dreamt about a big white viper coiled in the grass in a crowded park. Children were walking right over it – even stepping on the snake – and it moved not a muscle. It was the weirdest dream! I was a nervous wreck – gently pulling little tykes aside by the arm: “Big snake! Careful kids!” Little babies in diapers crawling over the serpent’s body, unharmed… while I all the while was the one anxious. I don’t trust that snake. And yet, I was seized by the urge to want to play too! How could I with my guard up?

What an image for the people of God, who aren’t afraid to dance in the face of death – to shine a light in the darkest night – to stand tall in hope even in our weakest moments, that God is with us. That dream is a metaphor that occurs in our first lesson from Isaiah.

We may not see a world where wolves lie down in peace with the lambs… or where children play innocently on the dens of snakes. But we are called to envision a world – and to help bring it about – where wolves and sheep can dwell in safety.

I think about the shootings in North Minneapolis and how neighbors there are taking to the streets – to take back their community – to refuse to be driven by fear. How are we making this community a reality? I want to close with a story about Beth Slevcove, who found a way to make friends with the wolves in her community, as told by her husband, Joe:

When my wife, Beth, and I moved from the suburbs to a warehouse loft in the center of a large city, Beth embraced every aspect of urban life — even the sirens, the parking problems, and the car alarms at night. The homeless people made me nervous, but Beth learned their names. The only neighbors who bothered her were the guys who ran the tattoo parlor across the street. They got into traffic-stopping fights, harassed women on the sidewalk, and intimidated men. They were the reason Beth didn’t walk on that side of the street. For two years she glared out our window at the row of men sitting in front of the shop and fantasized about shooting out their tires.
Then one day she called me at work to tell me she was getting a tattoo. She’d never wanted a tattoo before and had even taken pride in being one of the few people in our group of friends with no body art. Though surprised, I said OK. Later she called me back and announced, “I did it.”
When I got home, Beth excitedly showed me the delicately inscribed words “Love thy neighbor” on her wrist. She explained how she’d marched across the street and gone into the tattoo parlor. The walls were covered with drawings of skulls, bloody knives, naked women, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Manuel, the proprietor, was working on somebody’s backside. Beth introduced herself as his neighbor and asked if she could watch. He said sure.
After a while, she went outside and sat in front to study the world from their perspective. The guy next to her asked what she was getting done.
“ ‘Love thy neighbor,’ ” she muttered.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, you guys are my neighbors, and I’m having trouble loving you. You kind of scare me — you know, with the fights that break out over here and all.”
He ushered her back into the shop and announced, with complete sincerity, “Manuel, dude, we’re scaring our neighbors! We got to stop fighting.”
Manuel was defensive — until Beth explained that she didn’t want to change him; she just wanted to get this tattoo.
Manuel showed her a picture in a magazine of “Love thy neighbor” tattooed on a man’s inner forearm — with bloody knives in the background.
“Not exactly,” said Beth.
After they’d settled on a design, Manuel began to do his art on her wrist. Then he stopped. “How do you spell thy?” he asked shyly. “I didn’t go to school.”
The other tattoo artist piped in, “Dude, it’s not because you didn’t go to school. It’s because you don’t read the Bible!”
From then on Beth would wave to the tattoo artists as if they were old pals. The music from across the street was not so grating to her nerves. No more fights broke out. The sidewalk felt safe.
Four months later, Beth took our car in for an oil change and saw Manuel talking to the repairman behind the counter. As she began to remind him who she was, he stepped forward and gave her a warm hug. “Hey,” he said to his friend behind the counter, “this is my neighbor, the one I was telling you about.”
Joe Slevcove
San Diego, California

May we, too, be people who can reach out to our neighbors – with a new definition of success – baptized by fire and the Holy Spirit – for the sake of the world! Let us pray: O God, you have called us to repentance and to a new life in your Son, Jesus. Help us to overcome our fear of following you lead us with water and fire to that coming kingdom, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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